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Photo by Don LaVange

Beer School Blurred (Guide) Lines

Despite efforts to establish strict definitions in the craft beer community, brewers continue to defy convention with beers that are near impossible to properly categorize.

Which makes it difficult for the official programs that certify judges or license “cicerones” to keep up with the times. Nowhere is this more evident than in the style category of barley wine.

What is a barley wine? Well, that’s a good question. Today, most would define it as a high-gravity beer of at least 8 percent ABV with a considerable amount of residual sugar and a malt-forward flavor profile. Fair enough, but are things like residual sugars and flavor profiles not subjective?

Traditionally, a barley wine was just a high-gravity old ale. No ABV “point of no return” caused such a determination. It’s a British naming convention that has been applied to the biggest beer in a brewer’s portfolio. The malty characteristics we came to associate with barley wines have been the result of simply not having enough hops to overtake the copious amounts of malted barley. The original barley wines were brewed at the end of the brewing season to use up the malted grains and stock the cellars with liquid bread. (It’s important to remember that beer was brewed for the necessity of nourishment back then.)

Today, brewers are limited by only two things: imagination and money. If you have the capital, you can brew anything you want and there’s a robust market for high-gravity beers. Alcohol levels routinely cross the 10 percent mark, but not everything with a double digit ABV is categorized as a barley wine. Like stouts and porters, this category of beer is largely determined by the brewer.

Because most people associate barley wines with a syrupy mouthfeel and a high sugar content, brewers tend to steer clear of that moniker unless they’re paying homage to the English tradition of a modestly hopped malt bomb. Still, you have to ask yourself: is Columbus Brewing Company’s aptly named Creeper truly an aggressively hopped barley wine in disguise? What IBU threshold makes the difference?

There isn’t one. Barley wines can be a tough sell. A lot of people simply don’t like them, and those who do only like them during certain times of the year. Nobody wants to imbibe Uinta’s tasty annual barley wine (10.4 ABV) in July, but for some reason they’ll happily split the six-pack of 120 Minute IPA your brother-in-law smuggled in from Delaware at a holiday BBQ.

It’s okay—a good student realizes that the subject matter often evolves and if the masses wish to respect arbitrary lines, we can certainly identify some study materials that fit the confounding paradigm. While barley wines do appear on tap at better pubs from time to time, and local craft brewers offer some impressive versions of their own at the tap room, we’re going to suggest bottled varieties because you have the option of aging them. Yes, barley wines age exceptionally well. In fact, most are better if they’ve been cellared for a couple of years. Much better.

Jackie O’s Brick Kiln Barley Wine is an unabashed attempt to plant both feet firmly astride a fuzzy guideline. It’s everything you want from a barley wine. It’s big, malty, and boozy. You can feel the prickly heat of the alcohol on the back of your throat. The sorghum flavor of the sweet malt lingers on your tongue. It’s a slow ride. The beer drinks easy, but it takes time. This is not a thirst quencher, and if you’re pairing it with food, you might want to consider a plate of funky cheese and smoked meats. This beer is pretty much a meal in a glass, and it’s not taking a back seat to anything. There’s a bourbon barrel-aged version available as well. Barley wines love a long nap in a previously used barrel.

Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot Barley Wine is a masterpiece. Like most Sierra Nevada beers, it has a distinct hop footprint, and there’s definitely proprietary yeast in play, but this beer only flirts with the IPA on steroids category. It has a rich amber color, a high ABV, and plenty of malt up front. The wonderful thing about Bigfoot is that it ages exceptionally well, and it’s not expensive. You can pick up several of these in a given year and age them in intervals. Because Bigfoot is among the hoppier barley wines out there, you have a lot more going on in the cellar as this badass matures.

Anchor Brewing Company effectively introduced the style to the United States in the ‘70s when they released Old Foghorn, and it is Anchor that perhaps does the best job of describing what a barley wine is when they claim that it is to beer what port is to wine. Of course, port is fortified and barley wine is just a very strong ale, but as far as taste is concerned, they pretty much nailed it both in the description and the aforementioned ale. Go ahead and try it. We probably wouldn’t be here right now if not for Anchor’s contributions to the curriculum.

Most craft brewers don’t aspire to release a barley wine every year, so a wise beer scholar would do well to keep abreast of the local brew scene and remain poised to pounce on an irregular release. Hoppin’ Frog (Naked Evil BBW) and Thirsty Dog (Bernese) have both successfully dabbled in the genre without showing a full-on commitment. It’s hard to blame them because crafting a good barley wine is an expensive endeavor that doesn’t always pay immediate dividends at the register.

The sluggish sales, however, can work to your advantage. Sometimes the back of the cooler at your local beverage store can score a barley wine that’s been in hiding for a couple of years, and it’s not unusual for the purveyor to knock 20, 30, or even 50 percent off the price to clear the relic from inventory. There’s nothing like letting somebody else do the cellaring for you. This is especially true of samples that might have been deemed too sweet upon initial release.